Sometimes arcane legal doctrines can transform factually simple cases into confusing messes for jurors, lawyers and judges alike. Thompson Reuters reports a federal district case in which applying “the cat’s paw” doctrine in a sexual discrimination case confused the jury and led to a reversal and new trial by the Seventh Circuit.
In that case, Deborah Cook, a mall security guard, brought a federal sex discrimination lawsuit against her employer, IPC international Corp. Cook claimed that she was terminated after complaining about her supervisor’s sexually offensive comments. IPC countered that Cook was never fired, but instead quit after the same supervisor transferred her to a mall in another town.
During the litigation and at trial, Cook never raised the cat’s paw doctrine. The Seventh Circuit explained the theory as follows:
In the fable of the cat’s paw (a fable offensive to cats and cat lovers, be it noted), a monkey who wants chestnuts that are roasting in a fire persuades an intellectually challenged cat to fetch the chestnuts from the fire for the monkey, and the cat does so but in the process burns its paw. In employment discrimination law the “cat’s paw” metaphor refers to a situation in which an employee is fired or subjected to some other adverse employment action by a supervisor who himself has no discriminatory motive, but who has been manipulated by a subordinate who does have such a motive and intended to bring about the adverse employment action. So if for example the subordinate has told the supervisor that the employee in question is a thief, but as the subordinate well knows she is not, the fact that the supervisor has no reason to doubt the truthfulness of the accusation, and having no doubt fires her, does not exonerate the employer if the subordinate’s motive was discriminatory.
The “cat’s paw” doctrine can be thought of as an application of the “motivating factor” doctrine; the monkey’s malevolent intent is imputed to the employer. So if the employer can’t show that the monkey’s supervisor, who did the actual firing (or took some other adverse employment action), had a lawful motive uncontaminated by the monkey that would have led the supervisor to fire the employee even without the monkey’s interference, the employee is entitled to damages.
Because Cook did not raise this theory, the district court judge required her to prove that her direct supervisor was soley responsible for firing her. The jury returned a verdict in favor of IPC.
Cook appealed to the Seventh Circuit on the grounds that the district court erred in requiring her to prove that her direct supervisor was the “sole decisionmaker” responsible for terminating her. Judge Richard Posner, writing for the court, reversed the jury verdict and remanded the case for a new trial. Judge Posner explained that injecting “sole decisionmaker into the jury’s deliberations confused the jury. In particular, Judge Posner reasoned that the cat paw doctrine was inappropriate because at dispute in the case was whether Cook’s direct supervisor fired her. In other words, Cook’s supervisor was not a cat, but rather a monkey. In other words, there was no cat in the case. As such, the court concluded that the case was factually simple whereby the jury should have deliberated solely on whether Cook was fired in retaliation for complaining about her supervisor’s behavior or whether she voluntarily resigned.